The Miami Heat are in perpetual pursuit of maximum competitiveness.
They own that mindset, too.
“We want to win,” Heat president Pat Riley said at a recent press conference. “We want to win big. That’s it.”
Sounds like a noble objective, no? Well, not to those who question its merit, it doesn’t.
Never mind that it has already produced three NBA titles in the franchise's now 32 years of existence. Never mind that it has elevated head coach Erik Spoelstra to mainstay status in a profession that often appears like a frenzied game of musical chairs. Never mind that it just delivered Jimmy Butler, an in-prime, four-time All-Star, during an offseason Miami entered with no cap space and seemingly limited trade assets.
The plan isn't good enough, naysayers criticize. Not when so many believe that NBA teams should be graded solely on the championship-or-bust scale.
If that's the only usable metric, then Miami will fail the 2019-20 campaign before it even tips. The Heat aren't raising another championship banner inside AmericanAirlines Arena—not as currently constructed, not after any trades it might make.
That shouldn't sound harsh to any reasonable #HeatLifer. Butler doesn't have an All-Star sidekick. Bam Adebayo hasn't opened his first season as a starting center. Tyler Herro's heroics have been confined to the Summer League. The salary-cap situation and unpaid draft-pick debts both bear the brunt of questionable decisions—as always, made in an effort to maximize competitiveness—made in the past.
So how, then, can South Beach's finest make this season a meaningful, impactful one?
It starts with changing the conversation of our evaluations.
While championships should always be the ultimate goal, they're out of reach for most Association members—yes, even if the Golden State Warriors are no longer unbeatable juggernauts. Teams can Trust the Process and embrace the tank (right, Dolphins?), using the Philadelphia 76ers' collection of rising stars as proof of its powers.
But that ignores all of basketball's bottom-feeders who haven't escaped the cellar. Are any Heat fans really hoping to trade places with the Phoenix Suns? How about the New York Knicks?
The treadmill of mediocrity might be a real thing in the NBA, but who's to say the Heat are stuck on it? They just added an All-Star. They have their sights set on a second (Bradley Beal) and might have the resources to acquire him sooner (via trade) or later (through free agency).
They could have a dominant defensive anchor in Adebayo, who boasts the length to erase shots at the rim and the lateral quickness to execute switches on elite perimeter players. They could have an absolute net-shredder in Herro, who combines a lethal long-range stroke with the handles to free himself and the touch to hit his target on the move. They could have the Swiss Army knife stoppers so critical to defensive success in this small-ball-obsessed league with Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr.
Oh, and let's not exclude all the vets. Is it guaranteed that Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk can all live up to their eight-figure salaries? Of course not. But don't forget, they fetched those contracts for a reason. Dragic has been an All-Star and an All-NBA selection. Waiters was a crunch-time killer in 2017. Johnson has dazzled as both a do-it-all defender and the rare point-center. The 7'0" Olynyk has twice cleared 37 percent from distance.
Maybe the talent isn't elite, but it's unquestionably present. What a novel concept, right? Chase competitiveness, and you actually wind up with players who can get you there.
Now, what does that mean for realistic expectations?
Well, the playoffs are a non-negotiable for this campaign to elicit a passing grade. Miami has missed out on basketball's other Big Dance three of the past five seasons. Get denied entry again, and you start resembling the Charlotte Hornets with Kemba Walker. Not to mention, you start getting worried—very worried—about Butler's reaction to the shortcomings and whether the competitive fire that led you to him might now light the wrong kind of locker-room fuse.
But fighting tooth and nail for the seventh or eighth seed shouldn't be the Heat's target. Who are they, the Detroit Pistons?
No, hosting a playoff series should be the target. Maybe that sounds ambitious, but it's by no means outlandish.
There's a non-zero chance Butler mimics Paul George's leap from last season and enters the MVP race. The Eastern Conference player pool is shallow enough for Dragic to snare another All-Star spot. Herro can shoot his way onto the All-Rookie first team. Adebayo might warrant All-Defensive consideration. If Waiters' ankle finally cooperates, don't be shocked if he bounces back in a massive way.
Catch enough breaks, and this group might swipe the East's No. 3 seed. The Heat have questions, sure, but every team in the conference outside of Milwaukee and Philly might have just as many.
The Boston Celtics never replaced Al Horford and who knows what they're getting from Gordon Hayward. The Indiana Pacers still don't know when they'll have Victor Oladipo, let alone get him back to full strength. The Toronto Raptors could be a sluggish start away from a fire sale. The Brooklyn Nets may not (and, in his interest, arguably should not) have Kevin Durant all season. The Pistons and Orlando Magic are...well...the Pistons and Orlando Magic.
Miami's in-season goals start with a smooth transition for Butler, then shift to the maturation of its prospects and a return to form of its veterans. Check all three boxes, and the Heat could be staring at a top-four seed.
How's that for competitive?